Rebellion is one of those stories combining several narratives separated by time and distance. In China, we have the stories of Addie and Juanlan. In Ohio, we have Louisa and Hazel. Louisa and Addie are sisters. Hazel is Louisa’s daughter. The connection for three of them is quite obvious, though the connection to Juanlan is tenuous and revealed only to the reader.
The real connection is revealed by the title of the book. These are women who rebel at least once, always motivated by love. Louisa gives up her middle-class comfort to marry a farmer and settle into the hard, backbreaking life of an Ohio farmwife. Addie rebels by leaving her husband and her children in China for an affair. Hazel rebels by having an affair with her neighbor. Juanlan also rebels by having an affair with an influential married man.
I liked Rebellion. Patterson is an excellent writer who knows how to control her narrative. Most of the women are interesting and Patterson makes us care about them. I wanted them to be happy. I appreciated the shifting narrative as a way to build interest, emphasize their parallel rebellions and withhold information in parallel timelines. There was a powerful sense of time and place. The women were complex and interesting people, though the men in their lives were much less interesting. I did not think Juanlan was effectively connected to the other women and did not understand her purpose. The small connection was too small a payoff for such a long narrative in quite a long book.
I might have liked to see more with Edith, Hazel’s sister. She was another rebel, but got short shrift while Juanlan, a rather dull woman whose rebellion was so unworthy of her, got too much time. Perhaps in her own book with a story not formed around a rebellion that feels unlikely and unworthy of her intellect and aspirations, she would be a more fully realized woman. Instead, she feels like a character in service to the story of the other women. That’s unhappy.
I will note one thing that bothered me a lot. During the small narrative about Edith and her own rebellion, Edith is attracted to an African American woman who is very light-skinned and wonders why she does not make an effort to pass, particularly in Mississippi.She then introduces an unimportant, unnamed two-sentence character, a racist WAC colleague from Mississippi who used a racist epithet. It is a word that hurts people. It should not be used without a considering the harm inflicted on African Americans reading a book about decent women coming across that word out of nowhere. Yes, the word can be used in literature, but it better have a more important purpose than pointing out some folks in Mississippi are racist as hell. Instead, it feels like showboating, like staking the right as a white writer to use the word, even though it has no place in the story and does nothing to move the story. It brought my reading to a complete halt while I stopped and thought “What the hell?” and tried to understand what possible justification there could be for inflicting that on her Black readers.
This leaves me conflicted. Yeah, Patterson has the right to write what she likes. I just think any writer who cares about her readers would not use epithets that reinforce bigotry and remind people of their “otherness” in society unless they served the story in important ways.
Rebellion will be released on August 8th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through Edelweiss.